Paige Morgan

RMMLA Panel on Digital Humanities Microclimates: Demystifying Digital Humanities

I was fortunate enough to be invited to speak on a panel at the annual RMMLA meeting in Vancouver, WA, last weekend, along with Dene Grigar, Roger Whitson, Daniel Powell, and a cameo by Ray Siemens.  This is a slightly cleaned-up version of that talk. If you’d like to hear more related to the panel, then I recommend Daniel’s write-up at his own site.

On Demystifying Digital Humanities, at the University of Washington

I teach the Demystifying Digital Humanities (DMDH) workshop series at the University of Washington. This series includes six 3-hour workshops over the course of the school year, providing an introduction to digital humanities and multimodal scholarship, and some of the activities associated with digital humanities (DH) — professionalisation through social media, working with code, and project development. They take place on Saturday mornings, over breakfast. This is important, for reasons that I think will become clearer as I continue.

Our target audience is humanities graduate students, but we’ve also had attendees who are faculty and staff, and our participants are from at least 14 different programs at UW. We’re in our second year, and things are going great.

However, this program isn’t accredited, because I founded it with my colleague, Sarah Kremen-Hicks, and we’re PhD students. This year, we’ve added another PhD student, Brian Gutierrez, so we’re a team of three. We started the program with funding from the UW Simpson Center for the Humanities, and the Textual Studies program, because the UW doesn’t yet have an official course, certificate, or program in digital humanities. And 1), we wanted to do digital humanities, and make it a significant part of our careers; and 2), from our perspective, what it would take to get a digital humanities program started would be for more people at UW to do DH, and demonstrate that it was a real and tangible thing, and not just a bunch of headlines in the Chronicle.

So, we had a tiny little microclimate, in the form of the Simpson Center’s interest in DH, and some encouraging faculty sponsors from several different departments. That was enough to get us started, and we’re currently still working on cultivating the landscape to support DH growth.  That has several implications, which I’ll explain:

First, it means that one of our primary goals is working to develop our students’ agency to pursue DH studies on their own. With 6 hours per quarter, we don’t have space to teach a traditional seminar length curriculum. Instead, we focus on providing material that will help them understand some of the activities and motivations that drive digital humanities practice and scholarship, so that they can create their own training plan. It turns out that this is useful as scaffolding, and in no way a waste of time. There are lots of PhD students who don’t instinctively turn to what I call the Google firehose to get started in doing digital humanities. I don’t blame them, either — in fact, I think that there’s a sense in which they’re arguably smart not to just go searching on their own, especially if they aren’t overly familiar with information literacy. The problem isn’t that they wouldn’t be able to develop an idea of what digital humanities is — it’s that it could take a long time to do so; and I don’t blame them for being wary of that investment. Our job is to give them incremental building blocks that they can take, and transform, as needed, for their own studies. Many of these building blocks are assumptions that people who are active in the digital humanities are already highly familiar with — and so the assumptions tend to be less visible in everyday discussions. One way that we’ve tried to make those assumptions more visible is through a set of twelve values, which, together, describe the ethos behind digital humanities.

Second, it means that we have certain constraints. We avoid assigning readings, because the majority of our students are already carrying a full course load, and teaching. We can’t make this a stealth 5-credit seminar for which they don’t actually get credit. Instead, we send out email teasers, in which we often highlight one paragraph, or even one sentence, from an essay or website, and we teach using that. I’m the one who sends these teasers, and I really try to avoid anything that looks like homework. If I give people homework, then there’s a good chance that at least some people won’t have a chance to do it. The last thing that I want them to think is “Oh, I didn’t find time to do x, so I can’t participate in the workshop on Saturday.” I don’t want to set up a barrier where doing homework, or reading a critical essay, is the only way to get something out of the workshops. One of our major points is that so-called “traditional” humanities students already have knowledge that is applicable and useful within the “digital” humanities.

And third, it means that doing DH is about creating opportunities for our participants to be active, but that don’t require a huge commitment, such as, for example, a digital dissertation. (While I appreciate the interest in digital dissertations that I’m hearing about from departments, a digital dissertation is a huge project — and shouldn’t be anyone’s first DH project.) While we certainly teach aspects of project development and ideation, our goals tend to be more about creating opportunities that build towards larger endeavours, and that allow participants to see that learning about working with the digital is granular, as opposed to a monolithic info dump of instantaneously grasping everything about the Internet. In many ways, this is the most challenging part of running DMDH, because we have to do it on a shoestring budget, and in our <sarcasm>copious</sarcasm> spare time.

However — for me, this has become one of the most exciting parts of running the Demystifying workshops. It means that what we accomplish, we accomplish through collaboration with the already existing resources at UW — both UW Libraries, and UW-Information and Learning Technologies, mainly, but in coordination with departmental faculty, as well. The result is that working with the DH microclimate at UW is emphatically social, and human-centred; and it’s foregrounded as a collaborative endeavour between traditional and not so traditionally academic entities. In other words, the collaboration is the project. So, for that matter, is the awareness of how people work with technology, and learn about it — the things that help and hinder their ability and choice to learn, or their choice to not use digital tools for their research.

I think that one of the things we’re learning in the process is how much we can do with just one quote, or just one idea, and a group of engaged people. And also, how little people know about DH, and how easy it is for them to assume, not “I don’t want to do that”, but “I can’t do that.” I’m also becoming aware of how antisocial much of the professional work of the humanities has become, no matter how many works are cited in bibliographies. Intertextuality is not, in fact, the same as sociability, or social engagement with other individuals who are involved in the academic infrastructure of the humanities, and departments where publishing an essay or monograph is not the default means of communication. A lot of the work involved in the humanities really focuses on criticism, and critiques delivered through a traditional written format. I would say that one of the results of our experiment in developing the DMDH series is learning how critique can be enriched when it’s blended with interaction– how criticism itself can be collaborative, and productive because it’s something that happens in the context of an activity. I don’t think Sarah and I fully understood this when we started out last year. We knew that we wanted to be welcoming — but engendering a sensibility & sensitivity within human interaction has become something that I think about constantly at nearly every step of the way in planning these workshops — from including breakfast, to planning teasers and group activities that will allow people to learn from each other. I don’t think we would have made the progress that we’ve made in a single year if we weren’t paying attention to the human side of learning.

Running DMDH is changing the way that I see the University of Washington, from a place where I am simply bound to finish my dissertation, to a sizeable collection of people and offices that can be brought together to create events, resources…scholarship. I look at the campus and see all this energy that can be combined, in ways that I couldn’t see when I was simply focusing on my dissertation. And let me be clear: this takes work. I am not interested in merely throwing together a string of events — instead, the work, and the joy, is in figuring out how to organise events and projects that are designed to take root in the existing UW infrastructure, so that the connections between departments will have a chance to last.

The work that we’re doing– and here, I mean my colleagues Brian and Sarah, and a long list of other people, including Brian Reed, who is one of the best mentors that someone doing digital humanities, and DH infrastructure, could ever hope for, is imperfect, and incomplete, and oh, so tiny in the larger environment of digital humanities work taking place in academic and non-academic organisations all over the world. We’re in a microclimate. We’re doing things, and making mistakes, and correcting them in later iterations. But all this work is opening up questions, and practices, that I think are transferable to the larger climate zones in the humanities, whether they’re digital, or what people think of as traditional. Before our panel, Ray Siemens gave one of the RMMLA keynote speeches, a talk titled “Digital humanities? Digital literary studies: framing a response to (inter)disciplinary change;” and began by reminding us that what happens in English departments has always developed and changed, just as digital humanities develops and changes. Building a program from the ground up, with the constraints that I’ve mentioned above, has given me a great opportunity to see that change from a different angle — and to feel energized by it, rather than merely overwhelmed. And I’m incredibly excited to keep working in that territory in the future — at UW, and elsewhere.


  1. Pingback: On Digital Humanities Microclimates |

  2. Bravo! The energy you spoke of and the relationships that created it are what every profession, and America in general has undersold, belittled or simply stomped out in the spirit of control, and arrogance. I’m very hopeful to read about your pioneering work!

  3. Pingback: RMMLA panel on Digital Humanities Microclimates | DigIn' the Humanities!

  4. Paige, yes, Yes, YES! Thank you for articulating your approach.

  5. Pingback: Thoughts on the factors that contribute to a lengthy dissertation process, and on impulses to reform by changing the diss. | Paige Morgan